Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Films & TV

“There’s a lot more going on here than in your everyday blockbuster, providing good fodder for homiletic examination. With a light and dark side and the area in between, the Force remains a potent concept for spiritual pondering,” says Jonathan Sargeant in this spoiler-free film review

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Attend any workshop on writing stories, whether for scripts, novels or short stories, and eventually you’ll hear this: “It’s a cinch to start a story. What’s really tricky is finishing it!” This issue is magnified when the story at hand is a decades-spanning saga, revered all over the globe. It’s been 42 years since the first Star Wars film was released. When social theorists define the term ‘cultural phenomenon’, Star Wars is often in the next sentence. People name their children after these characters and we theologise about the themes from the pulpit. With all of this pressure, does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker deliver?

Let’s start with the answer to that build up: yes. It’s a resounding yes, with maybe a minor quibble or two.

With the Resistance led by Carrie Fisher’s General Leia on the run, evil Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hunts for an item that will forever cement his position. With formerly dead (!) Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) reappearing, that position looks tenuous! And, do embers of light still battle the darkness in Kylo’s soul? Certainly, and former scavenger and Force-sensitive protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) hopes to find out. With those threads in place, this last Star Wars film (for now) launches at light speed.

That frenetic pace is kept up for two hours plus. One might argue it needs to; there are so many characters, storylines and themes to resolve in this film. Where such a pace might be wearing (see the films of Michael Bay!), here there is such a euphoric vigour that the film is ultimately energising. Propelled by amazing set pieces, esprit de corps-based comic banter and a surprisingly nuanced struggle between good and evil, the film exhibits a relentless creativity, not easy considering the well-worn paths of the series (and many, many spinoffs in books, comics etc) for more than four decades.

The wonderful performances of Driver and Ridley deserve special mention. Their faces, often large in the frame, carry the weight of the spiritual heart of Rise of Skywalker. Both manage to convey the struggle that goes on in each of our hearts, establishing that a duality of mind and spirit is complicated and fraught. There’s a lot more going on here than in your everyday blockbuster, providing good fodder for homiletic examination. With a light and dark side and the area in between, the Force remains a potent concept for spiritual pondering.

There’s an extra touch of poignance here, too, because Carrie Fisher features in a pivotal role. That’s unsurprising until you realise the actor died in 2016 before shooting began. With unused footage from previous instalments, director Abrams and fellow scriptwriter Chris Terrio have crafted a story which enables Fisher to appear as a present character. Seeing her on the screen was a bit disorienting at first, but her performance works well.

There were times I wanted the pace to ease a little to allow big emotional moments to have their chance to breathe. It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that, like every other Star Wars film, with redemption and sacrifice as key themes, not everyone is going to make it out alive. The hectic momentum can sometimes be confusing plot-wise, too.

But the sheer feat of successfully tying together so much of the Star Wars universe into what is a fitting and emotionally-charged end with such good-natured verve and beautifully rendered film-making is to be soundly applauded.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, rated M, is directed by JJ Abrams.

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